We're approaching the end of this six-part prequel already, so it's no surprise to see Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena beginning to capitalize on the relationships of the characters now the groundwork's been done. "Beneath The Mask" was a marvelous episode of what's quickly become a fantastic series; ripe with operatic extremes and embellished visuals, yet anchored by relatable drama and compelling characters facing tough choices and impossible situations. I find myself enthralled by this series once again, especially now it's hitting a stride.
This week, it became clearer than every that Quintus (John Hannah) and his father Titus (Jeffrey Thomas) have very different approaches to being a lanista; with Titus preferring humility and hard-work, trusting that good things will come to those who wait, whereas his son's impatience means he demands quick success and hungers for revenge whenever he's wronged. In this episode, another Roman nobleman crossed paths with Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), enquiring about another of the sex parties the House of Batiatus is becoming famous for in certain circles. I'm enjoying Lawless' performance more in this prequel, as her character's on a downward trajectory that's more interesting to watch, quite aware she's become the madam of a brothel in important people's eyes. And given that we later learn Lucretia comes from a lower class, because Titus needles his son about marrying beneath him, I suspect this Lucretia is particularly upset she can only help her husband by lowering herself to a level she thought she'd move beyond.
The orgy was the highlight of the episode, but there was plenty going on around its edges to draw you deeper into Gods Of The Arena's story. I particularly liked the detailing that Ashur (Nick Tarabay) is still finding it impossible to gain acceptance as a gladiator (despite winning his first real battle in the arena) and later realizes he's only being tolerated because he can communicate with his more impressive foreign friend.
Titus also claimed that Gannicus will never be a true champion because his heart doesn't beat for anything, dismissing the gladiator's riposte that his heart belongs to the House Of Batiatus. Of course, it became clear in this episode that Gannicus has developed feelings for slave girl Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) after he was forced to have sex with her, and by the end of this episode they share a kiss, so perhaps this relationship will deliver the beat to Gannicus' heart that Titus is looking for in a champion. Ironically, this love may also be the very thing that stop his heartbeat if Melitta's husband Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) discovers his successor in the arena is also trying to steal his wife. Speaking of whom, it was great to see the new Doctore finally embrace his role as a gladiator trainer by cracking his whip for the first time.
Overall, "Beneath The Mask" was a wonderful episode of high drama and low blows. There's a certain level of predictability if you've seen Blood & Sand, regarding where the main characters will find themselves, but there's also enough uncertainty with the likes of Gannicus, Melitta, Tullius and Titus to make the journey worthwhile. Lessons have been learned from the previous year's lobotomized early episodes, and now Spartacus is functioning as a captivating spectacle of ultra-violence, scintillating sex, tough betrayals and gruesome murder. There's no other show on television like this, and it's rapidly become the highlight of my TV week. It's a shame the prequel's already entering it third and final act, but that's undoubtedly where all the fun's going to be.
- I couldn't resist a smile as Batiatus' words when he was surveying new slaves at the market ("Thracians aggravate Gauls"), knowing how that becomes a significant problem for him in Blood & Sand.
- There was one haunting moment when Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt) noticed her best friend having exhibition sex in the middle of the orgy, catching sight of her dead-eyes. The girl's innocence has been ripped from her soul after she was forced to lose her virginity as part of a nobleman's depravity, and now she's little more than an compliant feminine husk.
- Did anyone else get the impression Solonius has an eye for Lucretia? And will this come into play before the finale in a few weeks, explaining why Solonius and Batiatus are enemies during Blood & Sand?